Democratic Debacle


As one civil rights worker noted, for the state’s largely poor, uneducated black population, the fear of even trying to register was “a highly rational emotion, the economic fear of losing your job, the physical fear of being shot at. Domestic servants know that they will be fired if they register to vote; so will factory workers, so will Negroes who live on plantations.”

The volunteers had struggled fruitlessly. The Kennedy administration, fearful of antagonizing Southern Democrats and believing a state should administer its own affairs, consistently refused to help. In the face of violence and coercion, the civil rights workers scarcely made a dent in Mississippi’s Jim Crow political system.

In 1963 the Council of Federated Organizations adopted a new tactic and sponsored a “Freedom Vote,” an independent mock election intended to show national politicians that Mississippi’s black residents would vote if given the chance. At the center of the effort stood a 29-year-old math teacher from New York named Bob Moses.

Inspired by the wave of lunch-counter sit-ins that had engulfed the South in early 1960—a spontaneous movement involving 70,000 students—Moses had traveled to Atlanta to serve as a volunteer in SNCC’s start-up office. At the suggestion of Jane Stembridge, a white SNCC volunteer, he had then gone on to Mississippi to establish contacts with black leaders there. He met with Aaron Henry, a Clarksdale pharmacist who was the statewide NAACP leader, and Amzie Moore, a postal worker and businessman from the town of Cleveland. Moses and Moore became fast friends, and Moore convinced him that the pressing work in Mississippi was not desegregation but voter registration. Few blacks in the Mississippi Delta could afford the price of a restaurant meal; before they could be an economic and social force, they’d need to become a political one.

Moses took the advice to heart. In the summer of 1961, working virtually alone, he started a voter registration drive in McComb, a small city near the Louisiana border. The work was dangerous, lonely, and hard. Sleeping in the homes of local activists, he spent his days walking from house to house, trying to convince local sharecroppers and service workers that it was both their right and their obligation to take the voting test. He was beaten by local police and harassed by white citizens; some of the people who took him in lost their jobs and even their lives. Though he didn’t make much progress in the way of voter registration, he was becoming a SNCC legend.

John Lewis, SNCC’s national chairman that year and now a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, recalled that civil rights workers saw Moses as a “Jesus figure, all-knowing and all-holy. That made him so uncomfortable he felt like climbing out of his own skin.” Slim, soft-spoken, and bespectacled, typically clad in a T-shirt and denim overalls, Moses preached his gospel on the most humble level. He wanted to help local people build local political structures. He avoided the press while insisting that black Mississippians had to take charge of their own liberation movement. As Lewis remembered, Bob Moses “always remained a true intellectual. ... He had a near-religious attitude toward autonomy and self-direction.”

Freedom Summer had been fractious yet glorious.

The Freedom Vote project required lots of fieldworkers, and to recruit them, Moses turned to Allard Lowenstein, a liberal political activist, who helped iron out the logistical details of the approaching mock election. Lowenstein recruited some 70 white volunteers from Yale, where he had graduated from law school, and Stanford, where he had been a dean. They converged on Mississippi two weeks before the November election.

Ultimately, 80,000 black citizens turned in mock ballots electing the state NAACP chief Aaron Henry governor and Rev. Ed King lieutenant governor of Mississippi. The election was of course nonbinding, but the message was clear: If given a fair opportunity, black citizens would participate in the political process.

Building on the success of the Freedom Vote, its organizers laid plans for two bold projects. First, they would brine even more white students to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to register voters. Placing the sons and daughters of affluent middle-class whites from New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the line of fire would surely draw media attention to the violent injustice of Mississippi political culture, as well as provide sorely needed manpower.